On our website, we’ve been publishing news stories each weekday for nearly a year—check ’em out if you hadn’t noticed! Nearly all are summaries of journal articles we feel have clinical relevance. With so much research news churning through our word processors, one phrase shows up again and again without fail: the dreaded ‘further research is needed’ to close a paper.
Well, of course it is. That’s pretty much the mission statement for all of science.
As an editor, that line always irks me. It feels trite to keep restating an obvious, foundational principle. Authors of journal articles shouldn’t rely on such an empty phrase; rather, they should articulate the scope of specific future work they’d like to see. Who better to say what deserves to come next than the people responsible for the original findings?
Still, maybe that cliché has some value in reminding everyone that no question is ever truly answered with absolute certainty, at least not in medicine. Although an interesting new book, Solving Chemistry, argues that that field has in fact wrapped up all its big issues, medicine is far more messy, intellectually speaking. Everything you do in the clinic can and should be challenged periodically, because its foundations are surprisingly shaky.
“Most physicians are largely pre-Newtonian” in their understanding of the processes that govern the body, retina specialist Mark Humayun, MD, PhD, pointed out in a discussion we had while working on this issue (his work is featured in two of the five projects profiled in this month’s cover series).
Dr. Humayun was explaining the challenges doctors face when collaborating with engineers, whose discipline has been following clearly predictable rules ever since Newton gave them a systematic conception of the natural world. Medical researchers don’t always have fully formed, mechanistic laws to rely on. As a result, they can’t deliver to engineers the precise specifications of what to build. Doctors have a much more provisional and tentative understanding of their field, and that manifests in what people call the so-called ‘art’ of medicine.
That interplay of instinct and precision is showcased in this month’s cover focus on innovation in eye care. Breaking from our usual format, we’ve asked several research teams to share with us the work they’re engaged in now to build new tools for tomorrow.
Why care about research? It’s a fair question to ask. In your busy day, you have to prioritize the here and now. But staying attuned to the near future helps you do better in the present. Seeing all the questions being asked allows you to recognize the shortcomings and just plain guesswork you sometimes have to get by with right now. Hopefully, that reminds you to approach patient care decisions with a dose of skepticism. Following research also gives you the liberty to contemplate a better future, for you and your patients, and watch it unfold.